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Avalanche of rain and mud kills at least 127 in China

Chinese Premier Wen Jiabao on Sunday toured an area in north-central China racked by an avalanche of rain and mud that killed at least 127 people and left hundreds missing, the latest disaster in a summer that has brought the nation’s worst flooding in a decade.

Wen’s visit came as rescue teams franticly searched flooded homes for survivors in Zhouqu county in Gansu province. Authorities were reportedly trying to find 1,300 people, down from an earlier estimate of 2,000.

A torrential downpour began late Saturday in the province’s Gannan Tibetan Autonomous Prefecture, an area dominated by steep and barren terrain. Most of its 135,000 residents are ethnic Tibetan herders and farmers.

Shortly after midnight, as residents slept, mountains of mud struck the area, smashing a small power station and wreaking havoc as the Bailong River overflowed its banks.

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Half the county was left underwater and one village of 300 homes was buried under mud and debris, according to the official New China News Agency.

Peng Wei, head of the county’s fire department, told reporters that “the county was in a valley and the river runs in the middle.”

State-run television estimated that 50,000 people had been evacuated. Nearly 3,000 troops and 100 medical workers were converging on the scene, and helicopters surveyed the damage, officials said.

“Now the sludge has become the biggest problem to rescue operations,” one local official told the news agency. “It’s too thick to walk or drive through.”

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Li Tiankui, a resident who lives near the Bailong, told the news service, “Someone said the fifth floor of my residential building had been submerged. People are busy looking for family members and friends.”

This year, 1,100 people have been killed and more than 600 have gone missing amid floods that have caused tens of billions of dollars in damage across 28 provinces and regions. Overall, about 875,000 homes have been destroyed, with more than 9 million residents evacuated.

Record-high rains have raised rivers in numerous regions to perilous levels, including the fast-flowing Yangtze River. Floodwaters filled the reservoir at the massive Three Gorges Dam to dangerous heights, officials said.

In northeastern China, about 40 large and medium-sized reservoirs were near capacity. Officials were investigating the breaching of one that killed 40 residents in five downstream communities.

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On Sunday, state-run TV showed images from Zhouqu, where torrents of mud several feet deep flowed down the county’s streets, sweeping along cars, trees and other debris. The coverage showed rescuers pulling one boy from a ruined house.

Terrified residents fled to high ground or upper stories of apartment buildings. Power, water and communications were cut in flooded areas.

john.glionna@latimes.com


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